BETTER TOGETHER by Raymond Rose
CreateSpace, 2011, 222 pages, 978-1460950906, Paperback, $16.00
Better Together is a novel that attempts to take on several of literature’s largest concepts–love, death, family, and parenthood. When dealing with such immense themes, it becomes easy to venture into the realm of sentimentality, to generalize these large themes and emotions in the hopes that they remain relatable rather than grounding them in personal, “real” moments. Unfortunately, Rose’s novel falls into such territory, and while it does become better, it’s a generic story filled with dialogue that seems unrealistic, a romantic plot arc that’s delivered with cliches, and a predictable storyline.
Better Together is the story of Paul Rhoads, a relatively successful writer who has decided to move back home to Pennsylvania for his high school ex, Annie, and her eight-month old son Max. Immediately after reuniting, Paul and Annie decide to marry each other. After a few weeks of familial bliss, Annie is killed in a bizarre car crash during the middle of a snow storm, and Paul is left to take care of young Max.
The first issue with this story is its premise. Person A marries Person B, Person B has a child, Person B dies and Person A has to rise to the challenge of raising said child. It’s a familiar story, one that has been successful in the past because it deals with a lot of human emotion. The problem is that it’s been done so often that we know exactly where this story is going, and it doesn’t feel fresh. There’s nothing new being brought to the table here, so while the characters in Better Together aren’t exactly poorly written, or even flat, the overall narrative feels stale. The formula here isn’t being changed, and if the formula hasn’t shifted, if you’re going to show people something they’ve seen before, then it needs to excel at what it’s doing in order to keep their interest. The writing has to be beyond fantastic, and, sadly, Rose’s prose just isn’t up to par.
For a novel that’s a meager 222 pages and has a very familiar story, every single page has to be of the highest quality to keep the reader hooked. Unfortunately, Rose doesn’t hit his stride until about eighty pages in, and by then we’ve lost interest due to the shaky beginning. The story’s introduction suffers because of the narrative’s structure; the story starts off with and spends a fair bit of time on the relationship that grows between Paul and Annie. But that relationship is one we don’t have much interest in. It suffers from some questionable dialogue that feels cheesy rather than natural. Rose uses cliches like “sparks were sparked,” and “life isn’t all roses and sugar,” lines we’ve seen numerous times before that now feel trite. He gives us description that feels overly sentimental, such as, “It felt absolutely right. It felt true…He saw his future in her eyes.”
All of these aspects, and especially this description, brings the reader to the most important question in the beginning of this novel–why? Why should we as the reader believe that it feel right or “true” for them to be together? After several years of being apart, Annie’s marriage to another man and subsequent divorce, having a child, and Paul living in California, it’s unbelievable that after one date they would become engaged. Then set aside that after so much time (they dated in high school) they’ve become entirely different people and consider the child involved in this scenario. Does Paul know if he’s ready to be responsible for another human being? Does Annie have any idea if Paul is a good father figure? He’s spent no time with Max. No part of their relationship feels real, so we don’t feel anything real when Annie dies. And after her death, we still don’t really have a stake in Paul’s relationship with Max because there’s no true conflict introduced until eighty pages in.
That said, once Rose introduces a bit of genuine drama into the story, it does begin to flow better. And although it continues towardits predictable outcome, it becomes much more enjoyable to read as the characters become more human. Still, for so short a book, Rose uses too much of his initial time poorly, and by that point we’ve already put the book down and moved on.
Thank you to Raymond Rose for providing a review copy of this novel.